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D. Christopher Kayes is a professor and the department chair of Management at the George Washington University. He is the author Organizational Resilience (Oxford, 2015) and Destructive Goal Pursuit: The Mt Everest Disaster (Macmillan, 2006).
James R. Bailey is a professor of leadership at the George Washington University. He is a frequent contributor to The Washington Post, Fortune, and The Hill, and the author of a Psychology Today column, At the Helm.
Advice on how to improve one’s self is everywhere. It accounts for about 2.5% of all book sales in the United States. Add in speeches, training programs, TV programs, online-products, coaches, yoga, and the like, self-help is a $10 billion industry per year, and that’s just in the U.S.
However, research shows that much of the advice extolled may be misleading or even wrong. Several myths about performance persist, despite research and practices that show they are half-truths at best. That might explain why the most likely purchasers of self-improvement books have bought another within the previous 18 months. The first myth-riddled book didn’t work, so they bought another, and maybe another soon after.
A recent report in the Journal of Management noted that of nearly 25,000 academic articles on performance, only a fraction include what psychologists call within person variance, which describes ranges, such as that between individuals’ top, average and worst performances. Advice too often mistakenly assumes performance can be compared across people, using the same gauge. That’s absurd.
Our observation of hundreds of performance seekers largely confirms the report and has led to delineating a series of myths that hold people back when trying to improve. These assertions are based on a diverse set of fields, including psychology, sports, arts, and leadership. We hope that by dispelling these myths, explaining the reality and offering some sound advice instead, we can help move people toward more effective personal development.
Myth 1: Performing at the top means consistent peak performance.
Reality: Top performers experience variability in their performance. Famed musician Gregg Allman has said that he suffered from stage fright throughout his career. The feeling, he explained, was not “Am I any good?” Rather, it was “Am I gonna be good tonight?” Whether he was going to deliver his best, or less, haunted him.
Advice: Expect variability. There’s just no such thing as linear, unwavering, improvement paths. There will be ups and downs. If the path is generally up, all’s good. To the extent you know and appreciate that, you’ll be more patient and less likely to be discouraged.
Myth 2: We get better by benchmarking ourselves against others.
Reality: Improvement involves repeating the actions and circumstances that lead to our best performances so that over time they become ingrained. It doesn’t come from mimicry. But research shows that we do, indeed, compare ourselves to others all the time, with negative consequences. In some cases, we benchmark against those who are more capable or accomplished, which can be counterproductive when we fail to match them. In other cases, often in a subconscious effort to preserve our self-esteem, we rate ourselves against people who are less successful — a “downward comparison” that is obviously anathema to personal development.
Advice: A better approach is to pursue real opportunities for improvement by reviewing mistakes and taking stock of how experiences can lead to improvement. Focus on getting better than you were yesterday and living up to your own potential and aspirations, not somebody else’s. This will give you a keener sense of where you want to go, and, more importantly, why.
Myth 3: Successful people engage in “singular deliberate practice” of one winning strategy.
Reality: Although Major League Baseball pitcher R.A. Dickey won the Cy Young award in 2012 in part because of his mastery of the knuckle ball — a pitch that’s difficult to learn but almost unhittable when executed well — he also practiced, and perfected, more traditional techniques. Especially when performing at his height, he thought of the knuckle ball as just one approach among many. He won by relying not just on that special weapon but on a variety pitches, speeds, and spins, to throw off the opposing batter.
Advice: There is no one way for you, or anybody else, to improve. Singular grand strategies seldom work because they don’t account for exigencies that emerge along the way. Adaptability is as important as plan. Don’t hesitate to call an audible — as long as it’s a thoughtful one. That will also increase your sense of ownership in the path willfully chosen.
Myth 4: Improvement stems from unwavering focus on your most challenging goals.
Reality: Evidence suggests that setting goals and pursuing them may actually inhibit improvement. In one study, professors at the University of Chicago asked participants to improve themselves in simple ways: hitting the gym or flossing teeth. The researchers found that while goal-setting increased the amount of thinking those subjects put into something, it actually decreased the amount of time they spent doing it.
Advice: Create some separation between goal planning and doing. First, think about your end game, such as “I want to improve my golf swing,” or “I want to increase the number of sales I make this year by 20%.” Once you’ve begun to execute, however, focus on what’s rewarding and fun about the activity itself, but de-emphasize the outcome. For example, remind yourself how much you like to play golf or talking to customers, without thinking about (and pressuring yourself) with that challenging target.
In the end, improvement comes from knowing our own unique challenges and abilities, not from following pop-culture formulas. It’s about understanding valleys and peaks, comparing ourselves to ourselves, adapting along the way, and staying small while staying big. This is not just advice for your own improvement; it’s a way to lead others. After all, you have to be able to lead yourself before you lead another.